I think the first time I caught a close-up glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI was March 5, 2008, and I felt as if I saw into the depths of his soul.
He was delivering one of his Wednesday audience talks, and three friends and I had somehow scored tickets for the special section up front. We four were (and are) avid readers with a special devotion to the Church Fathers, the writers and teachers of the earliest centuries of Christianity, and so we were very excited about being there, for Pope Benedict was in the midst of a years-long series of weekly addresses on the ancient Fathers.
In the zone
Beginning in March 2007 and continuing into May 2009, Pope Benedict spoke on each of the Fathers, their lives and their work. The talks were brief, but lively, vivid, artful and complete. Sometimes he dedicated several weeks to a single historical figure. At the time we arrived in Rome, the pontiff had just finished delivering five weeks’ worth of lectures on St. Augustine.
|Pope Benedict XVI prays before the remains of St. Augustine in San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia, Italy, in 2007. CNS photo
That Wednesday he turned his attention to St. Leo the Great, and we knew this one would be good. This would be the first address since the earliest in the series to focus on a Father who was also a pope.
We were not disappointed. Pope Benedict was obviously excited about his subject and immediately established St. Leo’s importance in history. Pope Benedict confessed that he himself “spontaneously” thought of Leo during Wednesday audiences, because Leo is “the first pope whose preaching to the people who gathered round him … has come down to us.”
What began with pleasure, however, soon escalated into something else — something far better. Though my Italian is spotty, I could get the gist of the pope’s address. I knew the basic outline of Leo’s story anyway: his prominent role in one of the four great Councils of the Church; his negotiations with the barbarians who wished to plunder Rome; his simple yet profound sermons.
As Pope Benedict told the story, we noticed that he often put down his prepared text and added impromptu observations. Each time he did this he seemed to grow more excited. Finally, he just laid aside his script and spoke from his heart. His smile was broad, and he seemed to be sitting at the edge of his seat as he spoke. The man on the throne was clearly in the zone. He was in his element. He was almost ecstatic.
What my friends and I witnessed (in the company of a few thousand others) was more than a passion. It was glee. It was the happiness of a little child who, after patiently waiting through some long ordeal, was at last allowed to do what he loved best of all.
Pope Benedict has always loved the Church Fathers. He loved them long before he was pope, and even before he was ordained. It was as a seminarian that Joseph Ratzinger encountered the works of St. Augustine, who would be the subject of his 1953 doctoral dissertation, “The People and the House of God in Augustine’s Doctrine of the Church.”
As a young theologian he identified with the movement of ressourcement in the Church. The French word means “return to the sources” of Christian revelation; and for Father Ratzinger it meant specifically the Scriptures, the early Church Fathers and the ancient liturgies. Early on he was respected for his knowledge in all these fields.
During the Second Vatican Council, he served as a theological consultant to Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne. The world’s bishops called upon Father Ratzinger to draft or revise key sections of the council’s documents. Significantly, they also assigned him the task of verifying citations of the Fathers in council documents. Though it would seem a menial task to some, it must have been a delight to Father Ratzinger.
After the council he took a teaching post in theology at the University of Tubingen in Germany. The faculty was noted for its work in ecumenism, the movement to repair the divisions among Christians.
His study of the early Church deepened, and he showed himself to be familiar with the works of both the Eastern and Western Fathers. He invoked them as he applied their witness to his ecumenical work. “The Fathers,” he wrote, “are the common past of all Christians. And in the rediscovery of this common possession lies the hope for the future of the Church, the task for her — and our — present.”
The Fathers, for Ratzinger, stand as an especially credible ecumenical witness because they precede Christianity’s major divisions — the East-West schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. They “are the theological teachers of the undivided Church; their theology was, in the original sense of the word, an ‘ecumenical theology’ that belonged to all.” Thus, according to Ratzinger, they can show us a way to restore the Church’s unity.
In his 1982 book “Principles of Catholic Theology,” he spelled out the importance of the early Christians for the life of modern believers. Catholics, he said, are not bound by myths but by history. God personally enters history, guides history, works through history, and so the study of history is, for Ratzinger, more than an academic exercise. It is a spiritual discipline. It is something essentially Christian. In no way does this devalue Scripture. For Ratzinger it is a “formula” that “Scripture and the Fathers belong together as do word and answer … the word is always first; the response second.”
Revelation, he explained, is communication, and communication is a two-way process. It requires a speaker and a listener, a call and a response. God’s revelation was perfect and complete in his Word, Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, his Word awaited a reception — an acceptance — an “Amen” on the part of the Church.
The era of the Fathers — and the lives and works of the Fathers — represented the Church’s “Amen” to God’s definitive revelation.
The Fathers’ issued their great Amen as they produced the canon of Scripture (the official list of books in the Bible), the classic creeds, the forms of worship and the hierarchical structure of the Church.
This is what the Fathers have done for us. We can hardly blame Pope Benedict for his delight as he recalled their lives.
The week after I was in Rome in 2008, one of the Italian newspapers, L’Espresso, reported on what my friends and I had noticed — that when he spoke about the Fathers, the pope simply could not confine himself to his scripted text. They went on to chart his departures in some detail. During one audience, the Holy Father enthused about St. Augustine: “I feel he is like a man of today: a friend, a contemporary.” What he said about Augustine, he could have said about many others of the Fathers.
May he know many beautiful moments, in his retirement and in the company of such friends.
Mike Aquilina is the author of several books, including “Companion Guide to Pope Benedict’s The Fathers” and “Take Five: Meditations with Pope Benedict XVI” (OSV, $9.95).